Maintaining Optimism

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

There are times when it is difficult to maintain optimism in the conservation business.  Today I spent the morning hearing many accounts of how climate change will shrink endangered habitats and expand the distribution of weedy species.  The researchers focused on the accuracy of their models.  Truly the models are only as good or accurate as the data that feeds them. It was interesting to see how pollen and fossil records have helped build accounts of past refugia during ice ages and it was a good reminder that the earth has undergone dramatic changes in the past.  For modeling the change in rare habitat with climate change, I was encouraged to see one researcher incorporate fine scale topographic and soil information into her model, along with the customary average annual temperature, average low temperature and precipitation information.  She argued that temperature differences between south and north facing slopes are as high or greater than some of the climate change models predict for increased temperatures in the next 50 to 100 years.  Still, sitting in the audience, even knowing the limitations of the data that is available and the accuracy of the models, the shrinking green areas on the beautifully rendered maps was disheartening, even for an optimist like me. 

So moving to another session, I heard accounts of adaptive management and adaptive collaboration for managing biodiversity.  I learned about some of the challenges facing Kakadu National Park and heard a critique of the way management objectives were written for the park.  Good lessons from this experience applied to anywhere in the world - remember to write quantifiable objectives and monitor so that you know how effective your management is.

Perhaps most encouraging was the tale of how R. Hill and her colleagues are achieving endangered species’ protection in the wet tropics through adaptive collaboration.  The basis of the strategy is the belief in deliberative democracy, whereby she and her colleagues empower individuals and institutions, employ scientific expertise through ongoing systematic conservation assessments, and secure ground action through community empowerment.   This talk reminded me of the critical role the public plays in conservation work and was truly an inspiration.

Therein lies the secret of maintaining optimism…listen carefully, weep if you must, shift to a bright spot, and find a colleague or an idea that is inspiring.  We all need to do that some days.